Friday, April 22, 2011

And she said "Lo and Behold! On bounty do they sit, yet of hunger do they daily eat."

Explaining how briquettes leave no waste behind, and demonstrating it  ... Yargpelle

Women of Tuori making sheabutter briquettes from our donated 20-pellet briquette-maker

I have been absent from this page for almost 3 months.
Unable to find my muse for the past few months … groping around and around in the ‘darkness’, I simply could not find it within me to write and update this blog. I had lost something ever since I came back from the Wa training … the desire to put a wealth of emotions into the ill-fitting clothes of words. Nothing I attempted writing could capture the feelings and experiences that I went through on that trip, nor the things I felt when I was there.

I was angry at the world of WORDS … disgusted at their inadequacy to allow me the flexibility and efficiency of expression, and in frustration, I boycotted the blog post about my training session in Wa. That trip had a deep impact on me. Period.
I’ve gone over the entire experience several times, and I have finally agreed with myself that it will take one general overview to sum it up, and 3 sequels to share the memorable details of the entire event.

It’s taken me all this time to come to this, and I’m still angry … but it’d a good king of anger now, and I apologise that you’ve had to wait 3 months for this.

The Wa Firewood-Alternative training did go very well, make no mistake.
But, before you go on any further, I urge you to read this blog post and here too (another blog post)
for a fuller understanding of all I’m going to talk about in the next few lines; this post is a general overview of the actual (Wa Firewood-Alternative) training, and there are going to be things that will only be alluded to.

Done reading those posts? Good. Let’s go on then.

 Though the training itself was concentrated into 3 days, I was in the Wa district on and off from 3rd March through to 13th March. This was to enable me run complementary preparatory trips, make treks to the villages to ensure they were ready, get sources for the biodegradeable and plant waste we would use for making the briquettes in the training practicals, sorting out transportation to and from, accommodation, etc.

At the end of it all, the most poignant moments were their faces and their hands … the feel of their hands in mine as they came one after the other to, it seems, caress my hand in a show of one-ness.

They certainly felt more than just handshakes.
And I loved that they smiled at me so hard their eyes were all crinkled up and their ears twitched up and down. They smiled deeply, and I just stood there grinning right back.
Then they began speaking in Wale, and asking me questions … and I couldn’t understand a single thing apart from the “Good Morning” greeting and the response.
So I said “Ansuma” (Good morning in Wale) and they burst out in loud, amused cackles and guffaws of laughter, clapping their hands and covering their mouths, as I also stood there shaking with laughter.

My ‘students’ consisted of some very old women, who still walked around with all the strength of youth -  not surprising since most of the indigenous people of the upper portions of the country have a wiry, tough build; also, their women do most of the manual labour, so they often keep physically strong even into old age.
The rest were women in their mid 20s to late 30s or early 40’s, and there were a few men, especially in the second village (Yargpelle) and a fair number of little children.
I loved that they interacted so much with me, and did not simply stare at me like an alien. I loved that they promised to use the briquette-makers I left behind. I loved that they opened up enough to share some songs and dances with me, during and after the training.

Now, these people live in very harsh, unforgiving environments. By way of hard luck as well as neglect by government in not giving them more facilities and infrastructure for development, they are forced to live on very little fuel/energy sources. Consequently, most of the time, they chop down and collect every little scrap of wood … make charcoal out of every available tree standing. This is what their lives revolve around everyday – how to gather enough fuel to take them through the day … every day.

But in spite of these challenging conditions, these two villages-in-training – Lawra and Yargpelle – were not at all hostile people. They welcomed, related morally and ethically with familiar people and strangers alike, and were very enthusiastic about the notion of creating this novel type of coal from things they could get for free or very cheap; things they would often dispose off, and also enthusiastic about the idea of being able to sell extras from the production at rates fairly competitive to charcoal prices. This meant income.
Now for a people who lived on very very little money and resources, and who had nothing else/much to do once the farming season was over in December, this is something to look forward to – an income source that can last all year round, and is very sustainable.
Unbelievable? Well, they did not believe it either.

All the time I was in Accra preparing, I would get several calls from the heads of the villages, passing on to me the opinions and questions of the people: could I really create green charcoal out of things like weeds, plantain waste, dawadawa waste, sheanut waste, cow dung, agricultural produce waste, etc etc? And can I really get it to burn and produce fire … fire … and heat just like charcoal or firewood? They laughed at the thought of it, feeling it was just another “city scam”.

By the time I arrived at the village with sawdust, sheabutter waste, and dried quantity of pre-made briquettes of cowdung-palmnut (the actual nut in the kernel) from Accra (Danny, the engineer and I had made these and tested them in the first few trials, and these were left over), the women and young children (and a few men) who flocked to the training site were jittery, I became nervous.

Most of them, first off, were very disappointed at the size of the Green Gold briquette-maker. To them, anything that can produce something as ‘magnificent’ as briquettes (green charcoal) ought to have been an imposing, impressive machine which run on electricity and had shiny clean plastic parts etc etc.
They were not amused at all when I pulled out a very simple metal contraption with 20 “shortbread biscuit”-like moulds in its belly; not at all amused to see that in keeping with its ‘green-ness’, it was worked by hand, not on electricity. Hehehe!

But curiosity still got the better of them, and when I asked for a coal-pot to be brought, they clustered closely around me; watched with open eyes and wonder as I poured in a few dried briquettes (cow-dung and crushed palmnut proper) and tossed in a few dried twigs, and struck a match. The locked-away smiles began popping out openly on their faces, as they watched the briquettes gently and unassumingly catch fire, burn up wildly, then smoulder down into a heat which could be fanned into large flames again, or left to smoulder for gentle heat … and they watched as it all burned and left nothing but white ash and the lingering but faint whiff of palm-nut.

They were now eager for the training, all but perched on the edge of their seats, anxious to see how this could be formulated – this ‘magic, magnificent’ charcoal. The rest was easy … and a lot of fun. See this youtube video of raw footage clip of part of one of the several training session that went on here. In it, you see me running the training and also see some of the villagers of Yargpelle trying their hands out on the process. And over here, you can have a gander at pictures of the trip and training sessions … and there are lots more where that came from!

Throughout the training in both villages, they freely asked questions - questions which showed that they were truly processing this and asking the necessary things.
Can smooth sawdust be used instead of the rough?
Can the final briquettes withstand the pressure of cooking tuo zaafi? Or will they crumble too easily?
How much briquettes must they produce to cook enough for the family everyday?
Can they use palm kernel (chaff)? Must they always crack the kernel open and use the nuts inside too, like I did?
Can they do only one mix, eg. Only dawadawa / sheabutter waste / palmkernel etc?
What other combinations would I advise?
Would the smoke be as black as firewood and charcoal smoke, and stain their ‘silver’ (aluminium pans)?
How long must it dry before being used?
How much would I advise that they sold it, compared to firewood and charcoal prices?
Why am I teaching them this?
Where did I learn it from, and who taught me?
Will I come back with a bigger machine (briquette-maker)? And can it not use electricity?
Can a small factory be made to produce it on a more commercial scale for them, the factory being located in that same community?

I loved that they interacted so much with me, and did not simply stare at me like an alien. I loved that they promised to use the briquette-makers I left behind. I loved that they opened up enough to share some songs and dances with me, during and after the training.
I loved that they asked me those, that they pushed and prodded, that they tried their hands on mixing it themselves … over and over till they got it right.

I have SO MANY clips of videos and several pictures of the entire trip, but I will have to upload gradually.

And knowing that it will be absolutely absurd to blog everything in one post, I have decided to provide sequels to this post:
1. The people and the reception (the Wa-Firewood Alternative Project by ESF)
2. My personal experiences and memories: the trip and the training
3. The follow-up trips back to the 2 first villages (to see how well they have sustained the briquettes, the challenges, the hopes, the demands, and what next).

This particular post is simply a general overview, to share the sum total of everything that occurred, and to let you dear reader know that it went very well indeed.
In fact, the trip had its very own sequel to it: Halfway through my time there, I was fascinated to hear from one of the natives of the Tumu area, brother to the Assembly member there (as he told me) that he will avail himself the next time I am in the Wa district, to escort me to the Sisala area to see for myself the havoc wreaked there by large scale charcoal production.
He told of how several efforts were being made to curtail the activity, but to very little success, and his strong belief that if I were to take the training to the leaders of the charcoal production in that area, and proposed a good concept, there could soon be something sustainable happening there in place of charcoal production.
Hint: briquette-production on a commercial scale, run by the same charcoal producers IN STEAD OF caharcoal, and deriving just as much income or even more for them.

I have taken this offer up, and when we go there next trip, I shall share the progress report with you on that project.
By no means does this mean that the briquette-training is over.
Far from that, it is actually the beginning. I have to follow up every couple of months and work with those villages to ensure that they don’t stop producing and personally using the briquettes; have to work with them to produce more till they can better handle a bigger machine; have to work with them till they can now masterfully run and maintain a mini-factory that actually produces enough briquettes for the entire sub-district, and not just the village, or a few families within the village. And I fully INTEND to see these through.

Yours in persistence,
Green Golda. :)

P.S.: At the 2nd village, they left me with the lingering memory of a dance of welcome and appreciation. I can’t help but share it with you. Have a gander here!!


  1. Golda, I finally got around to following this project in detail and I must say, my Lady, This is very refreshing and inspiring to see you actually walk the walk of making a change one person at a time. I am very proud of you. I am waiting for the follow up posts as I have questions of my own. Oh and just so you know, the first blog post you recommended we read is a dead link ( it seems to be tied into one Joshua Addo's documents on PC).

  2. Heya Maame. :) Thank you.
    I am working hard to round up my follow-up trips so that I can give that feedback online, and I'm also excited that already, people in Accra with notable businesses are approaching us to request our briquettes or the briquette-makers themselves, for their fuel needs.
    I will definitely make the follow up worth the wait.
    Thanks for alerting me about the dead link. Will rectify. It's actually supposed to lead you further down the timeline to one of the earlier blog posts, so you have a full understanding on this very posting.
    Thanks. Love!